Automatic Asemic

Note: This post contains affiliate links to the book(s) I mention. These allow me to earn a small finder’s fee from Wordery.com, at no cost to you. Thank you for helping to support writers, publishers, and this site! 

Sometimes, writing can be a visual art form.

Not the same way logo design or typography are — just the shape and flow of text itself. The letters don’t have to spell anything, they don’t even have to be letters (just look at the beautifully evocative text of the Codex Seraphinianus) in order to have meaning.

A portion of a page from the Codex Seraphinianus.

A portion of a page from the Codex Seraphinianus.

In the Codex Seraphinianus, the artist chose to use an invented language that doesn’t map to an existing one — while he invented an alphabet to write in, these letters join together to form words that don’t mean anything. The overall feeling is of being a young child who has gotten a hold of some beautiful and inexplicable book. The child knows the words mean things to those who can read them, and it feels like there is a whole secret world of knowledge there for the unlocking. But, without that kernel of understanding — without some way to turn the jumble of shapes into something that makes sense — there is a perpetually tantalizing, mysterious feeling of knowledge kept just out of reach.

In its primary role, written language is bound by semantics. C with an A followed by a T spells “cat,” and you know the sounds each letter stands for and the small, furry animal to which they refer. Asemic writing is writing unbound by semantics. It has meaning, it can be interpreted, but these things are not subject to the rules and logic of reading. The shapes and repetition of letters are treated as a pattern, neither more nor less than the fronds of a fern or the shapes of Arabesque tile, and the feelings and images they evoke are what give them meaning. This necessarily varies from person to person — where one may read aggression in the slant of a garbled word, another may see exuberance — but this subjectivity does not mean asemic writing makes any less sense than language.

codex

A close up.

It’s just different. 

In some of the magical and spiritual disciplines I work with, language becomes more than its literal meaning, and asemic writing can be doubly so. You can take a sentence, strike out the vowels and repeating letters, then rearrange the remainder into a sigil used to focus energy and intention. A planchette can dash across a page, leaving the uncertain scrawls of a spirit in its wake, while a group of breathless observers try to find sense in the jumble of lines and shapes. Scrubbed of their literal meanings, freed from the restrictions of semantics, letters and words (or alien shapes that only suggest letters and words) can condense into something else.

There are whole areas of literature devoted to analyzing word choice. “Happy” may not always mean “joyful,” and “patience” may not always be virtuous, and its worthwhile to examine why someone chose the words that they did. Even when words no longer have meaning, this still applies. Asemic writing is still made up of the lines and arcs we associate with text, and their placement is never random — there are things to be read in the ascending slant of a line, or a ripe, bubblelike downward curve.

Even when you can’t read the words, there is meaning in them.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Let’s Read: Remedios Varo’s Letters, Dreams & Other Writings

Note: This post contains affiliate links to the book(s) I mention. These allow me to earn a small finder’s fee from Wordery.com, at no cost to you. Thank you for helping to support writers, publishers, and this site!

varoI don’t know if I can express how much I wanted this book using actual, intelligible language words, as opposed to some kind of excited dolphin noise.

Saying “I love Remedios Varo” would be a little… not actually disingenuous, but small. I find her work inspiring. I love plumbing the depth of detail in her paintings. I’m fascinated by her life. If we had lived around the same time, in the same place, and there wasn’t a language barrier, I like to think we would have been friends (assuming she could get past my overly-eager fanning, but whatever). We could’ve had sleepovers, written letters to people we picked out of the phone book, and rearranged crocodile skulls, pipes, and armchairs together.

Incidentally, she was absolutely weird and I could not be more here for it.

See, what excited me about this book is that my Spanish is execrable, and her letters, notes, and other private writings aren’t widely translated. And by “not widely,” I mean that I’m pretty sure this is the only time they have been.

Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is short, but understandably so — it’s not as if she set out to have her notes compiled into a full-length book. It’s also extremely intimate, including details from several of her dreams. The first section comprises her letters to others (Gerald Gardner, who popularized Wicca, among them). Some of the recipients were complete strangers, and the letters were signed with fake names.

Anyway, this is pretty much all just preamble to my favorite bit: “The Observers of the Interdependence of Household Objects and of Their Influence Over Everyday Life.” I’ll let her describe it:

“This group, active for quite a long time now, has already made important verifications that make life easier from a practical point of view. For instance: I move a can of green paint some five centimeters to the right, I stick in a thumbtack next to a comb and, if Mr. A… (an adept who works in tandem with me) at that same moment places his book on beekeeping next to the pattern for cutting out a vest, I’m sure there will come about, on Avenida Madero, the encounter with a woman who interests me and whose origin I’ve been unable to determine[.]”

There are more descriptions of the private “solar systems” of the members of this esteemed (and, as far as I’ve been able to determine, imaginary) group. Armchairs, velvet shoes, skulls, a pipe inlaid with fake diamonds… All of them are described as laid out in a ritualistic arrangement, though it’s never explained exactly why each particular object has significance.

The Surrealist movement has some very strong ties to witchcraft and the occult (a topic I’d like to get into more deeply with a book focused on the subject). So, it’s unsurprising that Varo had her witchy tendencies, as well. The aspect of the practices of T.O.o.t.I.o.H.O.a.o.T.I.O.E.L. that surprised and intrigued me the most was their interdependence. Varo explains that new members of the group are limited in the objects they may use, and the manner in which they may move them. She goes on to describe committing an infraction:

“I permitted myself to add […] a dried hummingbird stuffed with magnetic dust, all of it well tied with cord, just as mummies are wrapped, using red silk thread. I did so without warning my colleagues, a very serious transgression according to the regulations of the group. Only our leader, with his long experience and his high degree of knowledge, can do something like that without bringing on grave consequences. What’s more, I intentionally put the can of green paint under a beam of red light that was coming through the stained glass pane of my window[.]”

She blames this course of action for a change in her paintings (the sudden, irrepressible desire to paint otherwise placid sheep with staircases coming out of their backs, for one), the ruining of a shirt, and the sudden appearance of a large deposit of salt in her bedroom.

Despite existing in discrete systems of their own, under the care of each member, the objects are all interrelated. Moving one affects things in the homes of other members, and doing so without warning is a serious thing. It put me in mind of crystal grids, and the way they (like all magic) can be used to influence something very far away — you don’t need the patient in front of you to work a healing spell, for example. Only, in Varo’s case, the movement and placement of ritual objects in other homes influences the ritual objects in hers, which, in turn, influences her everyday life.

Only two of her letters discuss this practice at all, which is a shame, because I find it fascinating. Even if she made it up entirely, even if there never was a group of Observers, the description of these magical tableaux conjure up a captivating mental image. The rest of the book is a collection of dreams, a pretend archaeological resource on Homo rodans, a few recipes for inducing specific types of dreams (erotic dreams require, among other things, “1 kilo horseradish, 4 kilos honey, and hats to taste”), and notes on her paintings. It’s a short read, like I said, but was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon that’s left my imagination invigorated.

 

 

Let’s Read: Veneficium: Magic, Witchcraft, and the Poison Path.

Note: This post contains affiliate links to the book(s) I mention. These allow me to earn a small finder’s fee from Wordery.com, at no cost to you. Thank you for helping to support writers, publishers, and this site!

veneficiumEven if I don’t currently include entheogens in my practice, the ideas and practices of the poison path fascinate me. It takes a tremendous amount of bravery, considerable knowledge, and a firm devotion to the idea of expanding consciousness over bodily safety. It relies on the concept that the dose makes the poison, and growth lies on the thin line between curative and deadly.

The concepts of the poisoner and the witch are inextricable. Just look at the reasons people fear “evil” witches: they were said to cause sickness in people and cattle, wither crops, and bewitch others into nonordinary states of consciousness. Just look at the Evil Queen who sends Snow White into a deep slumber with a poisoned apple, or the Sea Witch who glamours herself and tricks the Prince into falling in love with her. (And what is desire, if not an altered state of consciousness?)

Even in the Bible, the lines between magic and poison are blurred, at best. The words “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”  (Exodus 22:18) appear, but may not mean what  they seem to mean. The original Hebrew word, mekhashepha, is of uncertain meaning. Does its root, kashaph, mean “to cut” or “herb using”? A prohibition against magic in its entirety seems unlikely, given the historical context. Other sources later translated the word to mean those who used magic for evil — in other words, witches who “poisoned” by magical means. Could the Bible be warning its readers against poisoners here, instead?

Daniel A. Schulke’s Veneficium: Magic, Witchcraft, and the Poison Path explores the use of mind-altering substances, but it’s emphatically not a “how to” guide. A History of Pagan Europe followed the development and spread of Pagan practices across Europe, and this is in a similar vein — a resource for the history and cultural spread of the spiritual use of entheogens.

One bit I found particularly interesting was the chapter on The Spirit Meadow, particularly the description of bread made of black millet. There’s a sort of folkloric figure called the Black Miller. He’s a powerful, fearsome, shape-changing sorcerer, who makes an appearance in a song by Faun (Die Wilde Jagd), and in “The Black Mill” by Jurij Brezan. It’s unclear exactly where the moniker “Black Miller” came from. In context, it’s unlikely to refer to his appearance or ethnicity — much like the “black” in “blacksmith” refers to the material, not the smith themselves. In Veneficium, some of the information presented by Schulke adds an interesting dimension here, in a section about darnel (Lolium temulentum):

Darnel may well have been present in the notorious ‘black breads’ served at the Sabbat, as documented by DeLancre*, either as a deliberate inclusion or in the bread for its deliriant qualities, or simply as a by-product of the agricultural practices of the time. It is plausible that a toxic stew of deliriant grains, serving as the component basis of the Sabbat-bread, had synergetic effects operating between psychoactive components, if indeed darnel formed a part of witchcraft rites. This idea has been proposed in relation to the everyday bread eaten in medieval Europe[.]

*According to DeLancre, “… their bread is some horrible black cake made of black millet and some other drug…” which ‘confuses the senses’ of those who eat it, and likewise binds them to Satan.

Die Wilde Jadg tells the story of a pair of shapeshifters: one pursuer, one pursued. Based on the connotations of black millet, bread, and hallucinogenic fungi, it’s pretty easy to picture the eponymous “Black Miller” grinding away at the psychoactive raw materials of the “speculative ‘Black Bread of the Sabbat'” — a pretty spot-on occupation for a shapeshifting sorceror.

It would be easy for a book like Veneficium to fall into the trap of being dry and tedious, but it never does. The language is as poetic and striking as it is informative, and the subject matter is absolutely fascinating. If you have any interest in the spiritual use of entheogens and aren’t looking for a guide book, I highly recommend it.

Let’s Read: A History of Pagan Europe

Note: This post contains affiliate links to the book(s) I mention. These allow me to earn a small finder’s fee from Wordery.com, at no cost to you. Thank you for helping to support writers, publishers, and this site!

Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick’s A History of Pagan Europe was originally recommended to me years ago, and I pretty much just read it for the fun of it. When it popped up on the approved reading list for the ADF dedicant path, I realized it’d probably be a good time to give it a closer look. It’s a rather dense read (though still an enjoyable one), and, considering the subject matter, it takes a couple of passes to really absorb all of the information presented.

paganeurope

Jones and Pennick do an excellent job of connecting dots between disparate cultures, explaining each area’s stages of religious development in easy-to-understand terms. (The convergent evolution of the concept of sacred wells/trees/etc. between Mediterranean and Celtic cultures was especially interesting.) I particularly enjoyed the analysis of Celtic culture pre-Roman contact. There’s really a dearth of information available on this period — it seems like a lot of what we know is via the Roman conquest itself. Because of Rome’s relatively relaxed attitude toward outsider religions, many aspects of Celtic religion were preserved (albeit in an altered form) through syncretism with the dominant religion of Rome. The Druids disappeared. Their symbols, deities, and sacred sites, however, survived.

(Ultimately, it was this attitude that led to the persecution of monotheists — Rome didn’t particularly care what religion anyone was, so long as every citizen honored the ruler’s personal deity. It was believed that this helped preserve the state itself, and thus failing to do so was tantamount to treason.)

A History of Pagan Europe is a bit dry, as many books of this nature are, but it’s a book I find myself returning to now and then. There’s a lot to take in, and, as a Pagan, I feel that sources like this are important — simple, factual, without a lot of the editorializing you find in books geared toward a new-age or Pagan audience.